In the case of Widow Cuff against the Newark and New York Railroad Company, the evidence, given in the Hudson County Supreme Court, shows with what desperate recklessness the nitro-glycerin explosion at Bergen, in 1867, was brought about. Burns, the man in charge of the oil, was drunk and drowsy. Wishing to melt the glycerin, he dipped the can into a vessel of water, and then put a red-hot poker into the water. When he found this had no effect, he took an iron spike and hammered it into one of the cans to break up the frozen mass 1 Then came the explosion, at last. With proper care nitro-glycerin is as safe as gunpowder, though greatly more powerful. The paragraph we have quoted is from the New York Times, of May 14th. The daily press of this city evidently thinks itself competent to discuss any and all questions, whether of political economy, science, or transcendentalism. But assuming as it does to be the universal instructor of the public, it ought on a subject involving great hazard of human life to speak at least intelligibly, if not intelligently. What does the last sentence of the above paragraph mean ? There is a substance known to chemists called chloride of nitrogen. It is formed by inverting a jar of chlorine gas in a solution of sal-ammoniac, and it floats upon the surface of the solution in oily drops. The circumstances under which this substance is likely to explode are so numerous, and the certainty that they can all be eliminated from an experiment is so difficult of attainment, that the most skillful experimenters hesitate to exhibit even the smallest quantities of it to a class. Even when experimenting with very small quantities, Sir Humphry Davy was wounded in the face by an explosion of this substance, and the celebrated chemist, Dulong, lost an eye, and had a hand maimed for life in an experiment with the same explosive. Yet it is just as true of this substance as of nitro-glycerin, that, with proper care, it is as safe as gunpowder; meaning by proper care, the certain and absolute removal of all circumstances under which an explosion is possible. The explosive itself is perfectly harmless without the circumstances, and the circumstances will never blow people into fragments without the explosive. The great difficulty with nitro-glycerin is, that sometimes, through ignorance, and at others through heedlessness, proper care is not taken. Even the enforcement of proper care is a matter of difficulty. Leakages occur during transportation, when everything was supposed at the outset to be sound; and divers other accidental circumstances are liable to explode this substance which could not by any possibility render gunpowder unsafe. That explosive is the safest which will explode under fewest conditions, provided the conditions are such as may be controlled by ordinary means. The paragraph we have cited seems to convey the impression that in the Bergen disaster the means employed would have exploded almost anything but nitro-glycerin. The man was drunk. Surely, this of itself would have ignited gunpowder. He was drowsy. This would set fire to gun-cotton. He put the can into water. Everybody knows the wonderful igniting power of water upon combustibles. He stuck a hot poker into the water, utterly careless of the extreme inflammability of that liquid. Having failed to ignite this " sate," but powerful explosive, by any of the ordinary means enumerated, never known to fail with any other, this monster of recklessness had resort to an iron spike, an object of such deadly potency, that it can only be obtained by surreptitious means in any civilized country ; and with this fell implement he at last effected an explosion. The real facts in the case cited are that the very first agent employed by the unfortunate, and perhaps careless man, who ignited the nitro-glycerin, capable, in the manner he employed it, of producing ignition, did produce it with its awful results; and yet the Times makes this absurd attempt to torture the facts into a demonstration that it as " safe as gunpowder." Pie ! Fie! It is just because men rlo get drunk and drowsy and careless, and that many other unavoidable contingencies are liable to arise, which will explode nitro-glycerin more readily than dynamite and other less powerful explosions, that we deprecate the indiscriminate use of that terrible explosive compound.
This article was originally published with the title "The New York “Times” on Nitro-Glycerin" in Scientific American 20, 23, 361 (June 1869)